Travel-friendly mast to support a wire antenna

In the past several months, I was looking for an optimal way to support a lightweight wire antenna for my ultra-portable HF radio station. During my first year on the HF bands, I found a lot of joy and inspiration in operating in the field – be it during the longer road trips, or short weekend outings to some local parks. Whenever driving is my means of transportation for a trip, I use my full-power 100 W field station, supplemented with auxiliary solar power for better sustainability.

However, the deeper I got into field radio, the more I thought about various interesting operating opportunities that I can have while going on trips by other means of transportation – with airplanes being the most frequent. Be it visiting friends living in a different part of the country, or traveling for work – there is no way that I will bring my 20+ pound station with me! Thus, I started thinking of a different, ultra-portable radio station, that I will be able to pack in the airline carry-on.

After spending some time doing research (as usual), I became a happy owner of an Elecraft KX2 radio. I could operate it with my Super Antenna – however, there are better options both in terms of weight, and potential performance. I chose a PackTenna Mini random wire, which gives me an opportunity to get higher in the air (it’s important to be as efficient as I can with only 12 W of the radio’s output!).

I tried to use the throw line and weight and take advantage of the trees to deploy my wire antenna. However, I realized that this is not always that practical. In addition, using a “sloper” configuration gives me a higher take-off angle, which potentially reduces the antenna’s efficiency (unless I’m looking to work NVIS, which I’m not).

Thus, after much time thinking, I came to the conclusion that I will use a fiberglass telescoping mast to support my antenna. However, for the sake of keeping everything within certain dimensions, I had to look for compromises even here. I understood very well that I will not be able to have the mast that will support the full length of my random wire. I was looking for the longest mast that I could get – however, it had to measure less than 22.5″ to fit in my carry-on bag.

Tactical Mini fiberglass telescoping mast from SOTAbeams is my mast of choice for the ultra-portable travel HF radio station.
Tactical Mini fiberglass mast from SOTAbeams.

There are several great products out there, featuring 30+ feet telescoping masts that can support a full length of a 29-ft random wire (of course, many will want to have a longer one!). Among the top performers are, for example, the 33 ft one from PackTenna, or a similar one from SOTAbeams. Sturdy masts of up to 85 ft height are available from Spiderbeam – however, those weigh up to 40 lbs and will have you dig deep into your pocket.

The real compromise here is between the extended length of the mast, its collapsed length and its weight. Longer masts will either have too many sections (and top sections will be too thin and break easily), or will be too long collapsed, and quite heavy. The latter versions are good for car-based deployment, but are impractical for true portable operations. Thus, due to the length restriction mentioned above, I ended up having one best choice: the Tactical Mini telescoping mast from SOTAbeams.

Only 22.1" collapsed, the Tactical Mini fiberglass telescoping mast from SOTAbeams fits perfectly into my carry-on bag.
Measuring only 22.1″ collapsed, the Tactical Mini mast fits perfectly in my carry-on bag.

It is a great mast that comes in a convenient form-factor of 22.1″ collapsed – just perfect for my case! It features 13 sections that extend to 19.6 ft (6 meters). At the same time, the mast looks very sturdy and does not significantly bend even at the top sections. The weight of the Tactical Mini is only 1.5 pounds! When you get yours – it’s pretty much ready to use right out of the box. The only modification that I made right away was taping a small wire loop to the top section of the mast: this way it will be easier for me to hook the end of my wire antenna before the mast goes up in the air.

I attached a loop to the top section of the mast - it will be used to feed the wire antenna during deployment.
I attached a small wire loop to the top section of the mast to make it easier to attach the wire antenna.

For the initial testing of the mast I chose the Platte River State Park (K-2621 in the Parks on the Air program). It is not too far of a drive, and it features an awesome 85-feet tall observation tower. I wanted to test the mast on that tower for several reasons: (1) it gives me a great position high above ground to somewhat compensate for the disadvantage of using just 10 W of power; (2) it has very convenient rail frames that I can strap the mast to – thus no need for a tripod or guying; (3) it is usually windier up high – thus a better chance for some harder conditions for the mast to reveal its performance potential.

I chose the Platte River State Park's 85-foot observation tower  to test the performance of the Tactical Mini mast.
Platte River State Park’s 85-foot observation tower looked like an ideal place to test the performance of the mast.

For the time being, I decided to avoid guying in my mast deployments. No tripod will be included in my travel setup – otherwise it will become too bulky to be called “ultra-portable”. Thus, I will use surrounding objects at the operating location to strap the mast to them with two handy luggage straps that I recently found on Amazon. Unlike many others, these are only a bit longer than 3 feet – and I definitely don’t need more than that!

Two short luggage straps from Amazon were used to attach the mast to the rails frame at the top of the observation tower.

The mast is secured to the tower, and the PackTenna mini random wire antenna is attached to the mast.
Two short luggage straps keep the mast tightly secured to the rails frame at the top of the observation tower.

Weather was definitely on my side yesterday, creating ideal conditions for the test of a new mast. According to the National Weather Service office in Omaha, high winds in the morning reached 20 mph, with gusts exceeding 28 mph. I can only suppose that at 85 feet above the ground, winds were quite a bit stronger. The mast performed great: it remained vertical, and did not show any significant bending in the wind. It also did not collapse on its own, although I extended and collapsed it back and forth about 10 times.

The Tactical Mini mast performed flawlessly in the winds gusting over 30 mph.
The mast performed very well in high winds on the top of the observation tower.

Last but not least, I hooked up my PackTenna mini to the mast, and fired up my KX2 to make some contacts. The solar weather forecast called for a geomagnetic storm for the weekend, thus I did not have too high expectations for 10 watts into a random wire. I did hear quite some stations (mostly on 20 meters), even one from Italy, – however, was unsuccessful trying to call them back. In the end, I walked away with one CW contact on 40 meters in my log.

My operating position on top of the observation tower - the Elecraft KX2 HF radio transceiver attached to the PackTenna mini random wire antenna.
On top of the tower, I attempted to make a few contacts with the new antenna setup.
Beautiful panorama of the Platte River from the top of the observation tower.
View from the observation tower to the I-80 bridge across the Platte River (on the left of the frame).

Overall, I am very pleased with my most recent purchase from SOTAbeams. The Tactical Mini fiberglass telescoping mast is compact and lightweight – I did not feel any extra weight while getting up to the top of the 85-foot tower. At the same time, it is very sturdy and durable – I did not see it bending to any significant extent in the 20+ mph sustained winds, with 30+ mph gusts. It extends and collapses easily, with not much extra effort needed – but stays extended as long as you need it to. I am very much looking forward to deploy it in the field during my upcoming travels!

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